I have spent the last two weeks attending three conferences and various lectures in Russia and the UK, on issues including Public Policy, International Security, and using history to forecast and explain events.
Sadly, it seems clear that neither public policy nor those who study international security have been doing a good job, or paying much attention, to using history to forecast and explain events.
Back in late January, about 3 weeks before the Maidan uprising in Ukraine, I wrote a draft paper that I sent to FOREIGN AFFAIRS (which they declined). It was responding to an article they published in Jan/Feb by Michael Mazaar. Mazaar argued that the US had wasted a decade worrying about failed states, saying that fixing failed states is not the best way to fight terrorism and that we should stop worrying about them.
I argued that Mazaar had it all wrong — the purpose of trying to help strengthen failed states was not to stop terrorism, but to stop widespread regional crises that would produce collapsed governments and international conflicts. I wrote:
“Ukraine’s decade since the Orange Revolution as an increasingly weak state rent by corruption and declining legitimacy has left it on the brink of civil war and a major source of tension between Europe and Russia. Unmanaged Shi’a-Sunni conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria not only brought on civil wars; they continue to polarize the entire region into a confrontation between Sunni powers including Turkey and Saudi Arabia and an Iranian-led Shi’a axis that plays out through proxy wars and may lead to even greater conflicts.”
In the last few weeks, we have seen civil war in fact break out in Ukraine, which has caused the most serious Russian/NATO crisis since the end of the Cold War; and we are now seeing a collapse in Iraq that in conjunction with events in the failed state of Syria threatens to wreak havoc throughout the Middle East. And in addition, we have seen a coup overturn the once-promising democracy in Thailand. Regarding which I wrote, in a paper published in 2012, regarding the “Red shirt” protests:
“In the end, massive military violence ended the protests. Yet that mode of response makes it unlikely that Thailand will emerge from authoritarian rule anytime soon. The government has been discredited and relied on force rather than legitimacy to stay in power; once that step is taken, governments are generally committed to that path.”
Sure enough, despite the hopeful election of Yingluck Shinawatra, once popular pressures for change arose, the military turned to force and staged a coup to depose the Shinawatra regime.
I don’t claim to be a soothsayer; I don’t have a crystal ball and expert predictions are notoriously weak in identifying rapid changes from the status quo. But it takes no great prophetic powers, just a basic knowledge of history and revolutions, to realize that fragile states periodically collapse, creating regional and international disorder! That is what “fragility” entails and why it is important to worry about it.
Yet policy-makers seem to have decided that, once the US extracted its troops from Iraq and almost from Afghanistan, that state fragility was no longer our problem. So when states collapsed in Ukraine, Thailand, and now Iraq, we were wretchedly unprepared and “shocked, simply shocked” to see that we were reaping what we had sown. Nigeria is also in the process of melting down in the north under assaults from Boko Haram that have exposed the inability of that state to protect its people. That all of this happened just after we saw the wave of state breakdowns in the Arab Spring is just more reason to be dismayed — we should have been MORE alert to the risks of fragile and failing states, not less!
Still, ignoring the evidence is hardly unique to dealing with fragile states. The evidence is strong that immigration is helpful to countries — yet the US and Europe and Japan refuse to embrace immigration, instead trying to roll up their borders (and people demand they do so, as shown by the defeat of Eric Cantor in the US and the rise of the UK Independence Party and other anti-immigration parties in Europe). The evidence is overwhelming that the climate is changing in dangerous ways — yet people refuse to take any actions to ameliorate it.
I could add that action is needed on pensions to avoid debt explosions of the kind that felled Detroit and that will derail the state of Illinois and threaten other jurisdictions; that providing universal health care at reasonable costs is vital to keeping the US economy competitive; and that the U.S is becoming a sharply stratified society returning to gilded age levels of inequality but that could be stopped simply by going back to the same estate tax laws we had under Ronald Reagan. Yet people prefer to turn away from these problems rather than solve them.
I should say that one thing which was obvious is that I was the only person who was at BOTH the policy and international security conferences AND the very academic conference on using history for forecasting and explanation. I understand that; the latter conference had papers on topics such as whether mathematical models of history can cope with important individual events, the collapse of Mayan civilization, the future of youth in Iranian politics, and other topics that seem to abstract or too far past or too much in the future to capture the interests of policy analysts or those studying current international relations.
Yet unless we do a better job bringing historical and theoretical knowledge of social dynamics to bear, we are not going to be prepared to deal with the dynamics of the world around us.
Sadly, that is where we are now, as we watch in dismay and horror at events unfolding in Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria, Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya and will watch again in future collapses in other fragile states.
What did Santayana say? That those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it?